The Ramstetter Family of Golden Gate Canyon
By Maggie Magoffin
Friday evening I had the pleasure of attending Golden Gate History Night at the Golden Gate Grange where the evening’s discussion was led by long-time canyon residents, Charlie and Mary Ramstetter, and Charlie’s cousin, Jeannie Hostetler.
Mary opened the discussion sharing stories of the canyon from 1859 to 1872. During those years, Canyon Road was the only access point up the hill to Black Hawk, Central City, and the gold fields, resulting in the throughway becoming what Mary compared to Interstate-25 in Denver today.
We have all heard stories of the influx of thousands of Argonauts invading the gold fields during those early years, but Mary told how tourism was also big business. Wealthy men and women made their way west to get a firsthand look at the place making the news across the nation. The coachmen and lodging proprietors catered to these starry-eyed travelers, as they were willing and able to pay the high prices. Though Golden had little to offer in the way of lodging, Central City and Denver offered first-rate accommodations. She noted that back then, Central City built many of their buildings on stilts to accommodate for the uneven ground and sloping hillsides.
Sadly, just as years later the travelers on the trains west killed off the buffalo for sport, many of those tourists rode atop the stagecoaches shooting any wildlife that moved as they made their way up the mountain. Charlie, born and raised in the canyon, said that at the turn of the century there was little wildlife remaining, and he recalls returning from the war and spotting the first elk he’d ever seen in the canyon.
Fire was a huge issue in those early years. The miners often burned off trees and brush to clear way for their diggings and the travelers coming from the east were excited to see those fires burning off in the distance at night. Many of the travelers had romantic notions of the old west and the fires only added to their misconception of life in the gold fields. In addition to the damage done by the intentional fires, the flames often spread, destroying many acres of land. In 1868, Denver made it illegal to set fires, but by then the damage was done, and it took many years for new growth to emerge. This loss of forest was in addition to all the trees taken for lumber in the mines and mills.
Mary shared how in addition to those fires, folks dumping their ashes from their fireplaces into their outhouses occasionally set fire to the outhouse and often to the main house as well.
Jeannie read excerpts from stories written by her father about Central City, Black Hawk, and the gold fields, and I look forward to receiving copies of those stories to share in some future column. I do recall her telling how the first Masonic Lodge west of Chicago was in Central City, and how famous cowboy movie star, Tom Mix, starred in a movie made in Central City. There was also a tollgate at the bottom of Dory Hill in Black Hawk ran by George Bruce.
Charlie shared how he was one of fourteen kids, they never owned a car, and the kids grew up in an old mining shack. They visited their grandmother and listened to the Grand Ole Opera on the radio, and grandma would give him candy if he swept the floor. She suffered from breathing problems and performing household chores was very difficult. One time when they were visiting their grandmother, she kept telling the kids there were chickens under the house and they needed to go under there and get them out. No one believed her, and then one day a mama chicken and her babies came strutting out into the yard from under the house.
When Charlie was growing up in the canyon, the road was so narrow that two vehicles could not pass, and often the road washed out and the men in the community would gather together and make it right again. He recalled cutting wood by hand and making fence posts, and picking peas at his uncle’s place up on Smith Hill. The kids would fill their bags with peas and sell them and they could keep the money. One time his cousin put rocks in his bag to make it heavier – but he got caught and never did it again. Another cousin found an 1876 silver dollar while picking peas.
Charlie’s great-grandparents came to the United States in 1870. His grandmother was born on the ship on the way over and his great-grandmother died on board. Like many immigrants, the Ramstetters made their way west to homestead land. At that time, they could homestead up to 160 acres, and only had to show they’d made improvements to the land in order to keep it. Over the years, other homesteaders left the canyon and often the Ramstetters purchased their land.
Charlie and his siblings attended the Guy Hill Schoolhouse, which now sits in the Golden History Park. Back then, in addition to their teaching duties, teachers were the custodians, disciplinarians, and were responsible for any other duties related to the school.
Charlie recalls giving a lecture to a group of fourth graders about the schoolhouse and one of the students asking him if he flunked fourth grade. Charlie said he had to be honest; yes he did flunk the fourth grade.
He remembers how his mother received war stamps to pay for clothing, food, and other necessities. Like most canyon residents of those years, the Ramstetters lived in abject poverty. But, his mother would never take any other kind charity, even from the church. She would always tell the donors to give what they had to folks who needed it.
Charlie’s grandfather once shot a grizzly bear.
The Canyon got their first doctor in 1948. Prior to that, rarely did the doctor visit. Folks had to go to Golden for any kind of medical care.
Mary told how the canyon was once the summer hunting grounds for the plains Indians and how they came up the mountain to get poles for their tents, but the Arapahoe and Cheyenne feared the mountains. Many Ute Indians stayed south of Clear Creek.
There was once a tollgate into the canyon that charged different prices according to which direction the travelers were heading and what they were driving. Indians and funerals passed through free of charge. The express coach to Denver from Central City took 13 hours.
Charlie tells a story he believes to be true, but added it may just be a tale passed down through the family. His Grandpa enjoyed going into town for a drink. He would tie up his horses with the wagon in front of the bar. It is said that one time Charlie’s grandpa passed out drunk, so the bartender put him in the back of the wagon, tied the reins to the handles and sent him on his way. He made it all the way home and they found him in the barn in the back of the wagon the following morning.
Mary told how after the train came through to Black Hawk and Central City, the canyon road was rarely used by travelers going up the hill. There was no gold in the canyon and other than farming, there was little folks could do to earn a living.
Charlie told how at one time his dad went was prospecting in Clear Creek Canyon and remembers that throughout most of his childhood his father was frequently gone. He said, he had to come home once in awhile. After all, they did have 14 children. Charlie’s mother ran the farm, and would ride her horse to herd up their milk cows. When she had to leave to tend to the cattle, she would put the three or four youngest children in the bottom of the silo to keep them safe. He chuckled and added how she’d probably be arrested if she tried that today.
There was no electrical power in Golden Gate Canyon until 1953. The construction of the power lines brought high-paying work to the residents of the canyon and Charlie remembers being paid $2 an hour for working on the right-of-way. That was really good money back then.
Mary wrapped up the evening with a funny story about Billy Algood and his moonshine still. Apparently, Billy had a still up the hill where the State Park is today, and he would make his drop-offs at the brickyard. One time, Billy was making his way down the hill with a load of his famous brew when he saw headlights all around his house. Panicking, he sent the horses off running and sent the barrels of drink rolling down the hill. Upon arriving home, he cautiously opened the door to find his friends and neighbors in his living room shouting, “Happy Birthday, Billy.”
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